Lions win big against Timor Leste, but face daunting Bangkok mission

Singapore’s hat-trick hero Safuwan Baharudin heads the ball over Timor Leste in their 6-1 group-stage win at the AFF Suzuki Cup on 21 November, 2018. (PHOTO: AFF Suzuki Cup)

Job done? Not quite for the Singapore national football team.

Despite exceeding their interim head coach Fandi Ahmad’s four-goal win target in a 6-1 rout of Timor Leste at the National Stadium on Wednesday (21 November), the Lions’ hopes of advancing to the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup semi-finals now rest upon a daunting task on Sunday.

They would have to travel to Bangkok, get at least a draw against defending champions and hot favourites Thailand, and hope that the already-eliminated Indonesia can somehow beat Philippines in Jakarta in the other group match.

This is the scenario after the Filipinos somehow eked out a 1-1 draw against the Thais, courtesy of a 81st-minute howler from Thai goalkeeper Chatchai Budprom that allowed Jovin Bedic’s speculative long shot to first hit the post and then spill away from the custodian into goal.

The draw means that the Lions (six points) stay behind Thailand and Philippines (both seven points) in Group B with one match left to play. It also means that the Thais can still be eliminated if they lose to Singapore and Philippines get at least a draw against Indonesia, and thus cannot afford to relax in their final match. Only the top two sides advance to the semi-finals.

Fandi looking for belief among players

Despite looking glum after his side’s crowd-pleasing victory, Fandi insisted that his players have to stay positive and continue to have belief in themselves.

He said at the post-match media conference, “We are prepared anyway to fight to the end of the campaign. It’s perfectly normal that our fate will be decided in our last group match.

“But I believe in my team, I believe that if we stay tactically compact and disciplined, we can spring a surprise as the underdogs in Bangkok.”

Set-piece prowess

Against Timor Leste, the minnows of the group, the Lions found a most reliable weapon in their limited arsenal: set-pieces. Five of their six goals came from dead-ball situations, as the Timor Leste players were all at sea when defending against the more robust Lions.

It was because of this tactic that Fandi sprang a small surprise in his starting line-up. In-form playmaker Faris Ramli, who sustained a minor hamstring strain in the Lions’ 0-1 loss to Philippines on 13 November, was left on the benches. Set-piece specialist Zulfahmi Arifin replaced him, as regular left-back Shakir Hamzah took up the left winger position.

Fandi also made the anticipated change to a two-striker formation, as regular forward Ikhsan Fandi is paired with veteran Khairul Amri.

Singapore striker Ikhsan Fandi celebrates after scoring his second goal against Timor Leste in their 6-1 group-stage win at the AFF Suzuki Cup on 21 November, 2018. (PHOTO: AFF Suzuki Cup)

It was an astute tactical plan that nearly paid dividends as early as the third minute, when captain Hariss Harun leapt unmarked to head a corner wide.

Sure enough, the first goal duly arrived from another corner. This time, defender Safuwan Baharudin was the player open at the far post in the 11th minute, and he directed a powerful header past goalkeeper Aderito Raul Fernandes.

The 18,408-strong roared in anticipation of a goal-fest, yet almost immediately the Lions suffered an unpleasant shock, as Timor Leste equalised with their first goal attempt. A couple of missed interceptions, and all of a sudden the visitors’ main striker Rufino Walter Gama popped up in the middle of the penalty area to slot the ball home.

To the Lions’ credit, they did not get rattled by the equaliser. When a set-piece opportunity came again in the 18th minute, they capitalised again. This time, a swerving free kick from the left by Ikhsan Fandi was palmed by Aderito into the path of an onrushing Safuwan, who blasted it home.

From then on, the Lions threatened to score whenever they get a dead-ball situation. On the half-hour mark, they struck again, as Zulfahmi’s free-kick caused a goalmouth melee, before Ikhsan found enough space to slam the ball in.

Sure enough, the hosts found the net again three minutes before half-time with the best goal of the half. When a long free kick was headed back into the danger area by Safuwan, Ikhsan leapt acrobatically to execute a deft bicycle kick to score.

Focus in training pays off

The second half continued in the same vein, although the Lions squandered numerous chances, with the biggest culprits being Shakir and Faris, who came on as a 65th-minute substitute.

Nevertheless, the Lions sent their fans home happy with two late goals, as Faris scored a scrappy headed goal from a corner in the 90th minute and Safuwan completed his hat-trick a minute later, converting a fine cross from Hariss.

“We spent at least 20 minutes at the end of each training session to work on our set-pieces,” said Safuwan. “Thankfully, we were able to get great deliveries during the match and take our chances. We may need to do that again in the next match.”

So it boils down to two key clashes in two of the biggest stadiums in Southeast Asia – Bangkok’s Rajamangala and Jakarta’s Senayan. Can the Lions survive the cauldron of rabid Thai fans on Sunday?

“As long as we keep an open and positive mindset, and we keep fighting for the team, we can surprise the Thais,” Fandi insisted, ahead of what is undoubtedly the biggest challenge of his coaching career.

Related stories:

Four-goal win target for Lions against Timor Leste

‘Sloppy’ Singapore fall to Philippines to cede advantage at AFF Suzuki Cup

Lions begin AFF Suzuki Cup on right foot with 1-0 Indonesia win